Reflections on Yale EDST 110 Sheff Policy Memos

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Dear Yale EDST 110 students:

Mira Debs asked me to respond to your EDST 110 Sheff policy assignment, where several of you posted memos to advise Commissioner of Education Diana Wentzell on the state’s position in the ongoing Sheff v O’Neill negotiations. In short, your assignment asked you to respond to this prompt:

The Sheff plaintiffs and their supporters have advocated for increased funding to expand magnet school offerings, in order to create more spaces for minority students from Hartford and inner-ring suburbs to attend these generally higher performing schools. However, others have argued that the district and state’s resources would be better spent improving Hartford’s perennially lower-performing non-magnet neighborhood schools. Should the state’s first priority be racial and socio-economic integration, as the Sheff decision declared, or access to high quality schools across-the-board even if they remain segregated?

Several of you posted your hypothetical memos on the public web, which helps to educate many of us about your thinking on these very real issues. I was impressed by many of the insightful arguments and clear evidence you presented to Commissioner Wentzell.

Barbara Santiago focused on ways to improve the implementation of the magnet lottery, which I found compelling, but mostly because I’ve been arguing along similar lines in recent years, so am biased. Eddie Maza argued for expanding magnets by building them in affluent suburbs, which would be politically popular (see long waiting lists for several suburban magnets), but it’s very hard for me to justify this approach because it seems to abandon the city. Jackie Ferro delved into the Lighthouse Schools argument, and the idea about addressing housing and schooling together sounds compelling at first glance. But the longer I have watched the state fumble around with this vague Lighthouse idea in practice, the more doubtful I have become about its viability. Chris Rice argued for a “balanced approach” that called for improving the current school system rather than expanding magnet schools. Good to see attention paid to reducing disparities among applicants and addressing transportation inequities, but it’s hard for me to envision improving access to quality integrated schooling without expanding the number of magnet schools. Ana Barros offered a creative idea by calling for the creation of an advocacy branch within the Hartford Board of Education, but I’m concerned that adding another layer of elected governance might confuse the political accountability issues she identified. Furthermore, in the fight between the Sheff plaintiffs and the state government, the city plays a weak role. If you’re going to challenge governance systems, why not alter the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), where suburban interests outnumber urban interests? Ophelia Hu took a different approach by arguing for the Commissioner to invest in non-magnet neighborhood schools. While I appreciate the arguments about neighborhood identity and the threats posed to them by non-neighborhood magnet schools, this strategy still begs the question: If Governor Malloy’s administration is fighting against funding the Sheff remedy, which is required by Connecticut’s court system, what motivation does he have to fund a non-integrated remedy that has no legal backing? Overall, despite my criticisms above, the students who posted their essays online made me think more deeply about these issues, and to question my own thinking about what might work.

Now let’s jump from your hypothetical memos back to reality: For those of you who argued for making integrated schooling a stronger priority, the Commissioner doesn’t appear to be listening. Over the past two months since your Yale course began, take a closer look at what Governor Malloy’s administration has done about Sheff, acting through his Attorney General’s office and State Department of Education:

1) Connecticut’s executive branch recently declared that the judicial branch should end its role in the Sheff case. In September 2015, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban told Judge Marshall Berger that the court’s oversight of the state’s compliance with the Sheff remedy was no longer necessary. Objecting to his claim was Martha Stone, attorney for the Sheff plaintiffs. “To walk away from court supervision when thousands of kids are not getting the education they deserve would be dereliction of duty,” she responded. As of October 2014, less than 45 percent of Hartford’s Black and Latino students are receiving a high-quality racially integrated education, such as interdistrict magnets or suburban Open Choice schools. Judge Berger was surprised by the state’s abrupt shift, and ordered the two parties to continue negotiations, though no progress has been reported. (See reporting by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas at )

2) In the same courtroom exchange above, the Malloy administration also called for halting all future magnet school construction. “We are not building any more,” Assistant AG Urban told Judge Berger. Instead, Urban stated that “we are growing the Open Choice program,” where suburban districts voluntarily agree to enroll urban students, with financial incentives from the state. But the Open Choice program serves far smaller numbers of Hartford minority students than magnet schools (2,016 versus 6,490, respectively in October 2014). Also, some charge that Open Choice places the burden of integration on minority children by requiring them to travel long distances to outlying suburbs, rather than building integrated magnet schools in the city or near its border (

3) Although the Attorney General’s staff claims to be growing Open Choice, the State Department of Education is reducing its funding. In November 2015, Commissioner Wentzell responded to Governor Malloy’s call to cut $4.5 million dollars from the education budget by recommending a $500,000 reduction for the city-suburban Open Choice Program for integrated schools. (In fact, the entire list of proposed cuts affects only urban students, whether in integrated or segregated schools.) But Wentzell did not change the school funding formula that sends state money to all districts across Connecticut, including many suburbs. Furthermore, she remarked that her proposed cuts “will not impact the ‘core mission’ of the agency,” which leads me to wonder about what she considers to be her top priorities (

Although you’ve written excellent hypothetical memos to Commissioner Wentzell, over the past two months it’s become clearer to me that Governor Malloy wants to get rid of the Sheff case, and she appears to be going along with that plan.

Perhaps we should consider a different writing assignment that better represents the difficult political realities. Rather than advising Commissioner Wentzell, what would happen if you reframed the assignment to pose the question from the perspective of the Sheff plaintiffs, and their lead attorney, Martha Stone? Maybe the writing prompt would look something like this:

Nearly two decades have passed since the 1996 Sheff ruling that affirmed Hartford students’ constitutional right to quality integrated schools. Yet the Sheff plaintiffs and their allies have struggled to pressure Connecticut’s governor and legislature to comply with the state supreme court’s order. The road to a remedy is not even halfway complete, with less than 45 percent of the city’s Black and Latino students enrolled in interdistrict magnet and Open Choice suburban schools. Recently, Democratic Governor Malloy’s administration has sought to remove court oversight of the Sheff remedy, stop new magnet school construction, and reduce Open Choice funding. Given this context, what strategies do you recommend for the Sheff plaintiffs?

Indeed, that’s a harder essay to compose, because it’s written for the people who have less power in this dynamic, not the more powerful ones at the State Capitol. But you’ve given me some ideas about what we all need to work on, and perhaps I do something similar with my students at Trinity next semester.

Letter to Norwalk Board of Education

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This was my letter sent to the Norwalk Board of Education on June 16, 2015 as an individual. My views are my own.

Dear members of the Norwalk Board of Education,

Several newspapers recently reported that the Norwalk Board of Education would be hiring a former Superintendent of the Hartford Public Schools (HPS). As a Hartford Board of Education member since 2010 and an educational researcher, I write to raise concerns about claims made about the Hartford Public Schools between 2006 and 2011.

A press release from the Norwalk Board of Education suggests that HPS improved test results and graduation rates because of a change in policies and a new superintendent in 2006. It is true that HPS embarked on a policy of expanded school choice and hyper-accountability. This included closing schools and reopening them as themed academies.

However, there is little evidence that these policies alone resulted in improved achievement and graduation rates. As I wrote in The Hartford Courant in 2011, there was a mixed result from these policies – at best. Most importantly, the apparent “increases” only began when testing and graduation policies changed to artificially inflate this data.

Hartford’s “historic” test result increases only began when low-income, Black, and Latino students with disabilities were removed from regular tests and allowed to participate in a separate modified assessment in 2009. By 2011, 10% or more of all Hartford students, all with disabilities, were selected for a separate test. While this was happening, the HPS superintendent and administrators took credit. They also took bonus money for the subsequent increases, caused in large part by removing these kids.

I have written extensively on this issue. You can read my Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant, my report for CT Voices for Children, and my TEDx Talk at Central CT State University on the issue. This is not speculation, but fact.

Hartford’s graduation rate also has a number of question marks. Between 2006 and 2011, several policies changed that inflated graduation rates. First, the formula changed to calculate graduation rates. This new formula has excluded hundreds of Black and Latino students. They have been transferred out of their cohorts, and effectively removed from all calculations.

Second, online credit recovery and the policy of mandatory minimum grade of 55% inflated graduation rates. Online credit recovery, required by State law in 2010, meant that students that did not pass a course the first time were allowed to take the course online instead.

Hartford’s “F-55” rule mandated that a student failing a quarter or semester would get a 55% percent. With this rule, a student could earn a 75% in one quarter and pass the rest of the course, even without doing any work or even showing up to class. The Hartford Board of Education never approved these changes for online credit recovery and the “F-55” policy.

The information is not new, but ignored. Elected board members in Hartford raised concerns about both the test scores and graduation rates with little response from the Superintendent or his successor. Interestingly, the video of the meeting in early 2011 where Board members confronted the superintendent about the test inflation was reported as “damaged”. This was the only missing or damaged meeting video in my six years of service.

Rather than outright success, much of what happened in Hartford can be explained by these data illusions. Also, the tremendous State investment in school choice, particularly magnet schools, under the Sheff v. O’Neill agreement has played a major role.

The Hartford Public Schools are still trying to recover from the considerable damage caused by the school “turnarounds” started in 2006 and the unregulated school choice system. Our district is in as much or more financial distress with the expansion of school choice programs beyond our ability to support them. Many of the “turnaround” schools have experienced their second closure and reopening. In many of the Sheff magnet schools and most of our non-magnet schools, our staff still struggles to meet the needs of all children. Even former proponents of these policies have come to question their viability and performance.

I believe deeply in the ability of our city’s children and families, mostly Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino folk, to succeed academically and thrive in life. That is what we have been doing for hundreds of years with substantially unequal and separate opportunities in education and the economy. Yet, the limited resources that sustained our Black and Latino communities are now diminished, dismantled, privatized, or provided to only selected students. These resources included broad academic curriculum offerings, sports, special education services, bilingual education, and libraries.

While you are free to make the decision that is best for Norwalk, I would recommend not to make that decision based on discredited claims about Hartford. What happened from 2006-11 in Hartford may have helped some kids, but came along with further marginalization of the most vulnerable children and families in our city. In Hartford, we are still working for equitable opportunity.

Robert Cotto, Jr.

Member, Hartford Board of Education

CT Charter Renewal Update: The Accountability is Still Flexible

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The State Department of Education has recommended to the State Board that six existing charter schools get renewed. Today, Wednesday, May 6, 2015, the State Board of Education will vote to approve (or not) those recommendations to renew the charters of six existing state charter schools in Connecticut. My quick reading is that charter school accountability is still always flexible, as I wrote here.

The charter schools up for renewal include ISAAC, Odyssey, New Beginnings, Explorations, Common Ground, and Stamford Academy.  Although all the schools are recommended for renewal, the conditions of their renewal vary. I’ve listed each school below with a summary of the recommendations and conditions. Click on the link to view CT SDE’s resolution for each school.

There a number of unresolved issues here. CT SDE lists some of the highlights and concerns at each school. The reports talk about culture and climate, finances, test results, and demographics. But some of the major issues are ignored.

Racial and ethnic segregation in charter schools? There are state laws prohibiting segregation in charter schools.

Comparing charter school test results with school district test results? That’s comparing apples to oranges.

Using test results from 2013 to make a decision about a school in 2015?

Also, Stamford Academy squeaked by with a three-year renewal and one-year probation. If that school was a regular public school, with the test results it has, it would have been closed, turned into a charter school, or converted to a charter management organization. Right now, it is a charter school operated by a charter management organization.

I can justify not closing the school, but now we have a massive contradiction. On the one hand, CT SDE uses low test results to justify the privatization of “turnaround” schools with high needs and limited resources and lots of children of color. And on the other hand, they will never close a charter school, managed by a private, charter management organization with similar or far worse academic results over time.

So the next time CT SDE or your school board want to close a school in your town because of test results, or some other reason, in order to make it into a charter or privately-managed school, you might ask, “where’s our flexible accountability”?

(Here is the meeting agenda and materials. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at the CT SDE Office in Room 307.)

Five year charter renewal

ISAAC – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Odyssey – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Common Ground – five year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce chronic absenteeism.

Three year charter renewal

New Beginnings – three year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism. Must develop growth
targets and may face probation for not meeting goals.

Explorations – three year renewal, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism. Must develop growth
targets and may face probation for not meeting goals.

Stamford Academy – three year renewal, one year probation, must submit plans for improved academic outcomes, must submit a plan to reduce suspensions/expulsions and chronic absenteeism.

Housing Mobility App at the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut

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logo_ocaErin Boggs from the Connecticut Open Communities Alliance invited me to co-present at the 36th annual conference of the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut.

Slides from Erin’s presentation:


See also links I shared during my presentation:

CT OCA, Mobility Counseling,

Housing Mobility counseling in Baltimore:

Stefanie DeLuca’s report on Baltimore,

OCA-MobilityAppCT OCA, Mobility App tool, designed to help housing counselors guide housing voucher recipients to higher-opportunity neighborhoods

Jack Dougherty and contributors, Data Visualization for All, open-access book-in-progress,

Jack Dougherty and contributors, On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and Its Suburbs (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, open-access book-in-progress, 2015),

Connecticut Schools Excelling without Testing?

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When it comes to standardized testing, there are a number of stories we can tell. One of the dominant stories about education goes something like this: ‘Kids must take standardized tests every year or else we can’t hold adult accountable for learning – all kids, every year, in all schools. Parents need to know how their children are doing in school. For low-income, Black, and/or Latino & Puerto Rican children this is doubly true. Once the test data comes in, then assign merit to individual students. For groups, punish the “low-performers” and reward the “high-performers”.’

Another story is that Black, Latino, and Puerto Rican children and adults have been forced to take standardized tests since IQ tests were first administered in the 1910’s. This testing served to mask and justify the underinvestment, academic tracking, segregation, and miseducation in schools. (Au, 2008) Within these conditions, we persisted. Occasionally, lawyers won a civil rights case by citing test data. Oftentimes the tests helped authorities select the most meritorious among us for advancement.

But what would happen if there weren’t high-stakes tests to sort children and rate teachers, schools, and districts? Would the schools still function? Would kids still learn? How would we know who to reward and who to punish? How might this disrupt these two very different stories about testing?

There are, in fact, a small number of public schools where kids don’t take high-stakes tests in Connecticut. For these schools, the CT Department of Education does something very unusual, contrary to what we are told should or needs to be done to schools. CT SDE simply invents rankings for these schools. No tests needed. As former CT State Representative Jonathan Pelto might say, “Wait, what?”

Under the original NCLB law, the state judged schools using kids’ test results, then labeled them as “In need of improvement” or “Not Making Annual Progress”/”Made Annual Yearly Progress”. With the NCLB Waiver in 2012, CT schools instead received new, more pleasant-sounding labels such as “excelling”, “progressing”, “transitioning”, “review”, “focus”, or “turnaround.” These labels were similarly based on standardized test data, as well as a few other data points such as graduation rates when they were high schools.

In Connecticut, there were 60 schools where children did not take high-stakes tests in 2012-13. So those schools can’t be labeled something like “excelling” or “transitioning”, right?


The 60 schools where kids haven’t had high-stakes tests were in two main categories. The categories included:

a. Schools that only served grade pre-k to grade 2

b. Schools that only served grade 9, or grade 11, and/or grade 12

These grades did not have high-stakes tests such as the CMT or CAPT in 2012-13. In Connecticut, children in public schools in pre-kindergarten through grade 2, grade 9, grade 11 and 12 did not have annual, high-stakes tests in 2012-13. But these 60 schools only had children in these “non-tested” grades. Still, they may have had local diagnostic tests or assessments such as the “DRA” to check in on kids’ academic progress. The high schools may have had graduation rate data that could be used to help assign a rating. But the key data point to make the rankings–the test results–didn’t exist.

Additionally, there were two schools (+2) with fewer than 20 students taking the tests, so their test results weren’t used for “accountability” purposes, but they were given a rating. (Briggs High School and Explorations charter school)

CT SDE found a way to work around the fact there wasn’t any test data to label these 60 (+2) schools. According to its school “performance” reports, the State of Connecticut, “analyzed district-wide data and applied the results of those analyses to schools without tested grades.”

This means that the State just looked at how the kids in all the other schools in the same district did on the standardized tests (CMT or CAPT) in grades 3 to 8 and 10, then applied the most frequent ranking across the district to any schools without tests.


Here’s the State’s explanation from the school “performance” reports from 2012-13. In this example, Coventry Grammar School was labeled “Excelling” based on the test results from the other schools in Coventry.

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So to recap.

As far as we can tell from the state’s open data, the students in Coventry Grammar School did not take the CMT, CAPT, SBAC, PARCC, or any other high-stakes tests in 2012-13. The school only had children in kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2. As of this writing, these grades were “untested” by the state, so the whole school was “untested” by CT SDE. Yet, this school was labeled as “excelling” based on the test results from other schools in Coventry. That’s excelling without testing!

Because these schools didn’t take the tests for one of the reasons listed above, the State Department of Education simply made up a ranking based on data from other schools. As the report reveals, this practice served to appease the Federal Department of Education.

So who were these schools? They were primarily suburban and rural schools with only elementary school grades, such as pre-k to grade two and a handful of high schools too.

These 60 schools had, on average (mean), 310 students, 66% white students and 27.5% student eligible for free or reduced price lunch. These schools were generally more affluent, more white, more suburban, and had smaller enrollments than the average school in Connecticut in 2012-13. Here is a full list.

Connecticut Public Schools Without High-Stakes Testing – 2012-13


Among this group, and in order of relative prestige, 7 schools were placed into the “excelling” category, 16 were labeled “progressing”, 34 “transitioning”, 4 in “review”, 1 in “focus”.

Only one school among this group-Ramón E. Betances Early Reading Lab School-was labeled in the “turnaround” category. It’s somewhat unclear how the school got this ranking.

Betances was (and is) arguably one of the more isolated schools by race, ethnicity, income, and language status in Hartford. In the past, overall test results were relatively lower than the city’s magnet schools and suburban schools. But the school also went through a “reconstitution” a few years ago in the name of raising test scores. (i.e. firing all staff because of low-test scores and bringing in new people)

However, CT SDE did not report any test data for this school in 2012-13, even though it did have a third grade class, a “tested” grade. The State provided no performance report for this school either.

Again, it’s unclear why the school received the ranking without any test data. As a school that had a federal “School Improvement Grant”, CT SDE may automatically placed Betances into the “turnaround” category. It’s also important to note that the Hartford Courant reported that there was a CT SDE investigation into accusations of test cheating at the school, so maybe that’s a part of all this case.

All this labeling, ranking, and sorting without standardized testing in these schools!

To be sure, no Connecticut public school students in grades pre-kindergarten, grades 1, 2, 9, 11, & 12 never took the CMT or CAPT high-stakes tests. (I know, that kind of bursts the, “All kids need to be tested every year” bubble.) So these 60 schools were special cases of schools with children entirely enrolled in non-tested grades.

By assigning these schools a ranking based on the test results of other schools in the same district, CT SDE quietly patched up another hole in the test machinery. But this patch opened up another hole in the story we are told that all kids need to be tested every year in all schools, or else!

This patch is difficult for CT SDE to defend. It busts a hole in the claim that tests are needed to tell parents how their children are doing in school. And this quick fix comes as more evidence surfaces that CT SDE has actively suppressed parents’ rights to refuse the tests, or opt out, as protest towards better education policy and practice.

The concept of more holistic accountability of schools is defensible, including periodic testing of a representative sample of the students in a district or school to get a picture of basic academic skill development. This is how the NAEP has worked for decades – testing a representative sample of kids in a handful of grade levels, not every kid, every year, in every grade. This is similar to how public opinion polls and the U.S. Census or American Community Survey work.

Remember, the dominant story says, “Testing is doubly important for low-income, Black, and Latino kids so they can learn. Without the testing, how can we know the kids are learning? How can parents know how their children are doing?” But these more advantaged schools didn’t need high-stakes testing to exist, get support from their communities and the state, communicate to parents how students were doing in school (I’m guessing that they have found other approaches), or receive a ranking that lead to the rewards and punishments that we are told they need. How was it that these more advantaged schools communicated children’s academic progress without high-stakes tests every year?

There are drastic differences in power between parents and schools in white compared to communities of color. So this testing business can play out differently in schools. Periodic testing might be used as check-in and provide data that can empower low-income, people of color. But annual high-stakes testing (HST) isn’t designed to erase historic inequities. Instead, high-stakes testing more often exacerbates those inequities. (Valenzuela, 2004)

Take Hartford, CT, where I live and I’m on the school board. About half of Hartford is Latino or Puerto Rican, a third of the population is Black (with many West Indian families) and 10-15 % white folks. The testing that supposedly offers parents more power is often disempowering.


Occasionally, parents speak about the test data to get attention, then their concerns pivot to mismanagement, mistreatment, under- or selective investment, and miseducation. The same test data is used by people with more power to justify mismanagement or under-service, close schools, offer hefty bonuses to teachers, staff, and administrators, provide more school choice “options”, define kids as “gifted” or “deficient”, and make claims about the people in the schools. Parents have power and agency, but testing doesn’t erase the differences in institutional power that they face. Instead of help in Hartford, the schools often get more tests.

The State already claims that schools are excelling, progressing, and transitioning without testing. A stale vision for public schools might call for more, better tests and more data. Why can’t all schools move forward and ditch the high-stakes tests and replace this enterprise with a different system of accountability?

A new vision must remember the other story about testing. That story says that low-income, Black, Latino & Puerto Rican kids have received underinvestment, tracking, segregation, and miseducation. Over the years, we’ve received plenty of testing and it has been used to obscure deep inequity. Still, we have persisted and navigated this world.

If remember this story, then all this testing business becomes more curious. If the testing stopped, then we might have time to look back and think more deeply about why all of our schools aren’t always “excelling” despite all the annual, high-stakes testing.

(Note: If you learn, work, or send your children to any of these schools, I would love to hear how they manage without all the testing. Comments are activated.)